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Getting real on college costs

Menzel TOM

My Home

You can’t miss the headlines:
“Tuition to Spike Third Straight Year”
“State Support of Higher Ed Continues to Plunge”
“Student Debt at All-Time High”

Meanwhile, we hear the incessant drumbeat of despair from business and industry that our schools aren’t producing the right kind of workers to feed the hungry beast of production and growth, even though a record 21.6 million students are attending American colleges and universities this year.

The Washington Student Achievement Council ( paints a bleak picture: “At a time when we should be educating a much greater percentage of our citizens to higher levels we are instead making it increasingly difficult for tens of thousands of potential students, many of them from our state’s most economically disadvantaged households, to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed. We have done this especially over the last three years through deep cuts in student funding … Worse yet, these cuts are almost certain to continue this decade, accompanied by corresponding steep increases in tuition that threaten to place higher education beyond the reach of many middle-class families.”

Not a pretty picture. So, what’s a good Washington leader to do in the face of ever-rising costs, seemingly insurmountable K-12 funding mandates and stingy taxpayers? First, we need to jettison the myriad of Band-Aid proposals to increase revenue for our colleges and universities. Instead, I offer below a few radical ideas that are likely to go nowhere, have little basis in research or data, and would likely elicit chuckles from hallowed halls in both Olympia and academia. But here goes anyway:


· It’s time for our colleges and universities to cut costs, starting with the heavy load at the top of the food chain – school administration – and continuing on through every line item of every budget of every department. It’s interesting that we hear so little about cutting costs at our universities while every other level of government is cutting staff and services. I understand that the state’s share of funding has dropped precipitously in recent years to levels where some public universities advocate going private, but I have some solutions for this.

· Stop punishing our students and their families with outrageous tuition and fee increases year after year – a 42 percent increase nationally at public institutions over the last 10 years. We all know that college grads fill the needs of business and industry, so let’s stop charging students and their families – yes, I mean a free education – and start sending most of the bill directly to the businesses that benefit. (OK, I can hear the howls of laughter on this one.) And while we’re at it, let’s outlaw unpaid internships, also known as slavery.

· Offer 100 percent free online courses that count toward a degree. Yes, humans have the capacity to learn in different ways. Online programs are already drawing from the expertise of some of our finest universities. While Western Governors University and others like it around the nation are offering online degrees at reduced cost, most free online programs offer only “certificates.” Now all we need to do is offer full degrees without charge. What are we waiting for?


· Immediately institute a corporate education tax that covers most of the cost of post-secondary education. Really, isn’t it about time for them to pay up? But I’m not suggesting they do it alone. We all have a dog in this fight.

· Immediately add the third leg to Washington’s woefully inadequate, highly regressive tax structure. It’s time for an income tax, folks. Hell, even Idaho has all three legs. And, while we’re at it, you Oregonians need to do the same by adding a sales tax.

· Simultaneous with adding an income tax, dump the weird Washington B&O tax – aka the “gross receipts tax” – and the insane patchwork of excise taxes, sales taxes, use taxes, tax incentives, deductions, credits and exemptions imbedded in Washington’s tax code to make up for the lack of an income tax (I think I hear more laughter).


· In return for implementing an income tax, we must cut a deal with taxpayers by running a very tight ship of state, controlling budget creep, sticking to the essentials and reducing the sales and property tax bite wherever possible. Yes, we need more revenue. No, we don’t need any waste.


· If I see another cover story or documentary trying to convince us that college is a waste of money I’m gonna scream. Of course it’s difficult to find work with a degree in history or philosophy – even law – during a down economy. Of course it’s difficult to pay off $30,000 in loans if you’re an “underemployed” college grad. But if we keep bashing the value of higher education we’re simply encouraging the dumbing down of a nation – and that’s economic, cultural and intellectual suicide. The point is: We must end student debt, not the pursuit of knowledge.

· Let’s set the record straight here. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (, in 2010 young adults with a bachelor’s degree earned more than twice as much as those without a high school diploma, 50 percent more than high school graduates, and 22 percent more than young adults with associate’s degrees. Median earnings for young adults with master’s degrees or higher was $54,700, or 21 percent more than those with bachelor’s degrees.


· Scratch this silly idea to charge higher tuition for science and technology majors in a desperate attempt to raise revenue, especially at a time when business and industry is begging for more grads in those fields. We’re in big trouble as a society if we start placing an arbitrary monetary value on every degree based on ability to pay upon graduation. Talk about a Pandora’s box. We need incentives, not disincentives.

· Try this instead: It’s past time for business and industry leaders to step up with stronger incentives to fill their recruiting needs, like getting more involved in education at the K through 12 level, pouring more cash into our higher-ed system, and more aggressively funding new programs to train their own work forces. It’s time for companies to invest their money instead of hoarding it.

· Don’t allow a single out-of-state or foreign student on our campuses until after ALL qualified Washington students have been accepted. Doing anything less is an affront to taxpaying Washington families.

A few years ago I was talking with my father about his days at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania when he brought up the debt burden that has been loaded onto America’s college grads, including many of his own grandchildren. In a few brief words he put it all in a nutshell: “The high cost of higher education is one of the worst public policy failures I’ve seen in my lifetime.” Unfortunately this policy failure has only worsened since that discussion. My father passed away last April at the wise old age of 95 with no solution in sight to this day. My mother is 93, and I hope she won’t be disappointed.

My 21-month-old granddaughter? Well, I guess I’ll just cross my fingers that things will be better by the time she decides to pursue her dreams.

Tom Menzel, of Hansville, Washington, is a communications consultant, community volunteer and former newspaper editor.

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